Author: Natasha Lester
Publication Date: 26 March 2019
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
Natasha Lester is a West Australian author who just gets better with every book. Her ability to bring events and times from our past into vivid reality on the page is being honed with every release, making each subsequent release her best work.
The French Photographer is meticulously researched as well as imaginatively written, bringing the life of a female war-time photo journalist to life on the page. The French Photographer was inspired by one of the first female war photojournalists and there is a lot of fact and real photos woven into the fictitious life of Jessica May, renowned Vogue model turned war photojournalist. There are a number of real people woven into the story and though some of what is in the novel is true, not all of it is.
I am at a complete loss where to start this review because I really don’t think I have the words to do it justice.
Once again Lester has written a dual narrative connecting two very different times in a mystery that isn’t unravelled until the dying pages. There were elements of the mystery that I worked out rather quickly but others were quite the surprise.
Any story set in a world ravaged by war is sure to have moments of utter heartbreak and The French Photographer was certainly not short of those. It was also filled with the treatment of women and what an outrage, but what an amazing job these women did of paving the way for generations to come; to make it a little easier for women to make their way in the world.
Jessica May, and all the other female war correspondents, worked hard to prove that were capable of reporting from a warzone; just as capable as the men, but who brought a completely new perspective to the stories they covered.
The females that were allowed on the same continents as the war, though not allowed anywhere near the front, were expected to write stories about the nurses and stories that really seemed ridiculously frivolous in the midst of a war. The stories seemed frivolous to me, 70 years later and in a different world; how must these reporters have felt in the middle of a war with so much going on that needed to be reported and they get sent to cover a fashion show.
I honestly couldn’t tell you which narrative was my favourite because there was so much to love about all of these characters. Sitting here thinking about it now, flicking through the memories of all I read and all I felt as I read and I think I have to pick the war torn years of Jessica May. I say this because her world was so much larger than the one we get to know D’Arcy in. Jess takes us through all of her experiences of the war, the discrimination, the horror, the atrocious behaviour of some soldiers across armies and the cast of characters encompasses photojournalists, war correspondents, soldiers, nurses and civilians.
In comparison D’Arcy’s narrative covers only a few weeks spent in a French chateau to pack up a famous collection of photographs by the very mysterious photographer who has remained anonymous through decades. Her story is largely contained within the grounds of the chateau she is sharing with the photographer, the agent Josh and Celie, the housekeeper. We still get quite an intimate look at D’Arcy and her life, we get to know her and the chateau well but it’s just not the same as the vivid pictures of the war.
Having a mystery at the heart of the story makes it difficult to know what I should and shouldn’t share. For that reason I’m not going to share the storylines, I will let you discover them as you delve into the world of The French Photographer that Lester has recreated with her lyrical prose. I will allow you to get to know the characters that I abhorred, along with those I adored as the story unfolds for you.
I found myself completely invested in Jessica’s life and the hurdles she faced, maybe a little more than her contemporaries because she managed to get her Public Relations Officer offside on her first day and the antagonism between them never faded; but also because she had a very public career as a Vogue model before she turned her hand to photojournalism. It made her a target for the chauvinistic attitudes and those who refused to believe a woman capable of finding her own stories, it was too easy to claim that she got her stories with her looks and what it was rumoured she was willing to do to get a story.
Jess was a strong willed, big hearted and extremely talented woman who wasn’t afraid to say what she thought, even when she knew it would come back to bite her. She was also the type of woman who seemed to attract the antagonism of those who could make things come back to bite her.
The sacrifices made by many in the war were not confined to the battlefield and Lester does a fantastic job of bringing all of the types of sacrifice together in a story that absolutely broke my heart.
Lester has managed to pen the struggles of extremely talented women who worked hard throughout the war to turn in stories and images that stayed with the world, stories that men either couldn’t see or didn’t want to tell, and the world didn’t always thank them for it. But it showed a strength of character and a bravery that all of the women who came after them can be proud of. They also did it knowing that the world they lived in wouldn’t recognise their skills and they would never be awarded for it yet they did it anyway. Then when the war was over and the male correspondents started returning home they were all expected to sashay lightly back to their homes to wait for a husband to look after them, to provide for them and to return to doing the real work.
Once again Lester has penned a tale that makes me thankful I live in the time that I do, and that I have all these courageous women to thank for the recognition we can now achieve.
The French Photographer is a must read, whether you are a lover of romance, history, art or just some amazing memorable characters. A couple of years ago I definitely couldn’t claim to love historical novels but talented authors like Natasha Lester are certainly changing that.
I found history to be quite tedious at school but reading wonderful novels like this can educate me on historical events that I had absolutely no idea about without the tedium I always attached to a history lesson.
The French Photographer is published by Hachette and available now where all good books are sold.